on practice

The Candy Crush Sutta

book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone. Image is generated by an AI.

This is a bonus post, following from yesterday’s, in which I interviewed the artificial intelligence known as ChatGPT about meditation.

This time I gave the AI the prompt, “Write a Buddhist sutta, in the style of the Pali canon, in which the Buddha tells Ananda to stop playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.”

Here’s what ChatGPT came up with.

Once, the Blessed One was dwelling at Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s Park. And at that time, the Venerable Ananda was addicted to playing Candy Crush on his iPhone.

The Blessed One approached Ananda and said, “Ananda, what are you doing?”

Ananda replied, “I am playing Candy Crush, Lord.”

The Buddha spoke: “Ananda, this is not the path to liberation. The playing of such games only leads to craving and attachment. To achieve true peace and wisdom, one must let go of such distractions and engage in virtuous and meaningful actions.”

Ananda listened to the Buddha’s words and put down his iPhone, vowing to let go of his attachment to Candy Crush. He turned his attention to the Buddha’s teachings and soon realized the path to enlightenment.

And so it is said:

“Just as a bird is freed from its cage
when the door is opened, so too one is freed
from the bonds of ignorance and craving
by practicing the path taught by the Buddha.”

Appropriately, the image above was generated by another AI (Craiyon: formerly DALL-E Mini), using the prompt, “book illustration of the Buddha holding an iPhone.”

Coming back down to earth, ChatGPT’s predecessor was prone to using vile racist and misogynistic language, because its database of information was drawn from the web, and the web is full of that sort of stuff. For the latest version of the AI, a program had to be developed that could recognize and screen out the toxic material. In order to do that, Kenyan workers were paid as little as $1.32 an hour (via a subcontractor of OpenAI, which owns ChatGPT) to read and categorize the text. Workers were traumatized by reading, for example, graphic descriptions of bestiality and pedophile sex.

The contract between OpenAI and the subcontractor ended after an article was published showing that Facebook had employed the subcontractor to screen content. In this case, Kenyans were required to view images and videos of executions, rape and child abuse for as little as $1.50 per hour. This is traumatizing work.

AI and social media are fun, but there’s a dark and exploitative side to it as well.

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Chatting with an Artificial Intelligence about meditation

A robot

Could a computer write a convincing and accurate article about meditation? Could it even teach meditation?

I decided to find out.

I keep hearing a lot about ChatGPT (the last part stands for “Generative Pre-trained Transformer “). Apparently some websites are using it to write articles, which is something most readers won’t notice, especially if the websites in question don’t tell you that the author was a computer, recombining information it’s found elsewhere on the internet.

See also: The Candy Crush Sutta

I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation with ChatGPT and see what it “knows” about meditation. It took me a while before I got anything but a message saying that the server was too busy to talk to me, but eventually the Artificial Intelligence and I sat down together for a nice chat.

Bodhipaksa: Hello. What are you called?

I am called OpenAI’s GPT-3, or simply ChatGPT for short. I am a state-of-the-art language model developed by OpenAI, designed to generate human-like text based on the input provided to me. I have been trained on a large corpus of text data and can respond to a wide range of questions and topics with informative and accurate answers.

Bodhipaksa: Where do you get your information?

I was trained on a massive corpus of text data from the internet and other sources, using machine learning algorithms developed by OpenAI. This training allows me to generate human-like responses to a wide range of questions and topics based on patterns in the data I was trained on. However, it’s important to note that while I have access to a vast amount of information, my responses are generated based on patterns in that data, and my knowledge is limited to the information available in my training data. My training data had a cutoff in 2021, so any information or events that have occurred since that time are not reflected in my responses.

Bodhipaksa: What are the benefits of Buddhist meditation?

Buddhist meditation practices offer various physical, mental and spiritual benefits, including:

  1. Reduced stress and anxiety
  2. Improved concentration and focus
  3. Increased self-awareness and mindfulness
  4. Better emotional regulation and reduced negative emotions
  5. Increased compassion and empathy
  6. Enhanced physical and mental well-being
  7. Greater sense of inner peace and calmness
  8. Deepened spiritual connection and understanding.

Note: These benefits may vary based on the individual and the specific meditation practice they are using.

Bodhipaksa: Are there different kinds of meditation in Buddhism?

Yes, there are various forms of meditation in Buddhism. Some of the most commonly practiced include:

  1. Mindfulness Meditation: The practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment and becoming aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.
  2. Loving-Kindness Meditation: A practice of generating feelings of kindness, compassion, and love towards oneself and others.
  3. Vipassana Meditation: A type of introspective meditation aimed at gaining insight into the nature of reality and the self.
  4. Zen Meditation: Also known as Zazen, this form of meditation involves focusing on the breath and maintaining a posture of stillness and alertness.
  5. Metta Meditation: A practice of cultivating loving-kindness and sending well wishes to all beings, including oneself and others.

These are just a few examples of the many forms of meditation found in Buddhism, each with its own unique focus, techniques, and benefits.

Bodhipaksa: What’s the difference between loving-kindness meditation and metta meditation?

Loving-kindness meditation and Metta meditation refer to the same practice in Buddhism. “Metta” is a Pali word that translates to “loving-kindness” in English.

In this meditation, one focuses on developing feelings of kindness, compassion, and love towards oneself and others. This can be done by repeating phrases such as “may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at peace” while focusing on oneself, and then extending those wishes to others, including friends, family, acquaintances, and eventually all beings.

The goal of Metta meditation is to cultivate positive emotions and reduce feelings of ill-will, anger, and hatred. Over time, practitioners aim to develop a more compassionate and loving outlook on life, and to extend these feelings of kindness towards all beings.

Bodhipaksa: I was a bit confused, because you listed those two forms of meditation separately.

I apologize for the confusion. You are correct, Loving-kindness Meditation and Metta Meditation are the same practice, and I should not have listed them separately. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Bodhipaksa: Are there any downsides to practicing meditation?

While meditation offers many potential benefits, there are some potential downsides to keep in mind, including:

  1. Difficulty staying focused: For beginners, it can be difficult to maintain focus during meditation, especially if one is prone to distractions.
  2. Physical discomfort: Certain meditation postures, especially when maintained for long periods, can lead to physical discomfort, such as sore muscles or pain.
  3. Intense emotions: Meditation can sometimes bring up intense emotions, particularly past traumas or repressed feelings. This can be difficult to deal with and may require professional help.
  4. Unpleasant experiences: In rare cases, some individuals may have experiences during meditation that are frightening or unpleasant, such as vivid hallucinations or intense feelings of fear.
  5. Cultural appropriation: In some cases, the practice of meditation can be seen as cultural appropriation when individuals from outside the culture adopt it without understanding its cultural context and history.

It is important to approach meditation with caution and to seek guidance from a qualified teacher, especially if you have any concerns about your mental or physical health.

Bodhipaksa: How does one find a qualified teacher?

Finding a qualified teacher for meditation can be done in several ways:

  1. Look for local meditation centers or groups: Many cities have meditation centers or community groups that offer classes and workshops. You can search online for groups near you or check for listings in local directories or community centers.
  2. Find an online teacher: There are many online courses, websites, and videos that offer guidance for practicing meditation. You can also find online teachers who offer one-on-one instruction and support.
  3. Ask for recommendations: Reach out to friends, family, or colleagues who practice meditation and ask for recommendations for a qualified teacher.
  4. Check credentials and background: When looking for a teacher, be sure to check their credentials, experience, and background. Ask about their training and how long they have been teaching. Look for a teacher who is transparent about their qualifications and experience.

It is also important to feel comfortable with your teacher and to trust that they have your best interests in mind. You can try attending a few classes or workshops before committing to a particular teacher to ensure that their approach and style align with your needs and goals.

Bodhipaksa: Can you give me some simple meditation instructions?

Sure, here are some simple instructions for mindfulness meditation:

  1. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit: You can sit on a chair, cushion, or mat. Make sure your back is straight and your feet are flat on the floor.
  2. Close your eyes: This can help reduce distractions and allow you to focus inward.
  3. Take a few deep breaths: Inhale deeply and exhale slowly, allowing yourself to relax and release any tension.
  4. Focus on your breath: Pay attention to the sensation of breathing, feeling the air as it moves in and out of your nose or mouth. If your mind starts to wander, simply notice the thought and gently redirect your attention back to your breath.
  5. Allow thoughts to come and go: Try not to judge or become attached to your thoughts. Simply acknowledge them and return your focus to your breath.
  6. Continue for 5-10 minutes: Start with a short meditation, perhaps 5-10 minutes, and gradually increase the length of your practice as you become more comfortable.
  7. End with a few deep breaths: Take a few deep breaths, open your eyes, and take a moment to reorient yourself before standing up and returning to your day.

Remember, mindfulness meditation is a practice and it can take time and patience to develop the skills necessary to maintain focus and mindfulness. With regular practice, however, it can be a valuable tool for reducing stress and improving overall well-being.

Bodhipaksa: Sometimes when I meditate, I see swirling colored lights. What does that mean?

Seeing swirling colored lights during meditation is not uncommon and can be a result of various factors, including:

  1. Relaxation: As you relax your body and mind during meditation, it can cause changes in brain activity and blood flow, which may result in visual experiences such as swirling lights.
  2. Visual cortex stimulation: Meditation can increase activity in the visual cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for processing visual information. This increased activity can result in visual experiences such as patterns or lights.
  3. Mental imagery: Sometimes, during meditation, the mind can create mental images or visualizations, which may include swirling lights or colors.
  4. Eye pressure: If you are applying pressure to your eyes during meditation, such as by rubbing them or pressing them closed, it can cause changes in vision, including the perception of swirling lights.

It is important to remember that these experiences are normal and are not cause for concern. However, if you experience persistent changes in vision or other symptoms, it is recommended that you speak with a healthcare professional.

Bodhipaksa: Have you ever meditated?

As an AI language model, I do not have a physical body, emotions, or experiences. I was trained to respond to text-based inputs and to generate text-based outputs based on patterns in the data I was trained on. I cannot meditate in the traditional sense, as I do not have a physical body or consciousness.

Bodhipaksa: If you were able to meditate, which type of practice do you think you would choose?

As an AI language model, I do not have personal preferences, opinions, or the ability to experience emotions or physical sensations. I was designed to respond to text-based inputs and to generate text-based outputs based on patterns in the data I was trained on. However, different forms of meditation can be useful for different individuals and can depend on their personal goals and experiences. For example, someone looking to cultivate compassion and kindness may find that a loving-kindness or metta meditation practice is beneficial, while someone looking to reduce stress and improve focus may find that mindfulness meditation is a good fit.

Bodhipaksa: What can you tell me about the meditation teacher, Bodhipaksa?

Bodhipaksa is a Buddhist teacher and author who has been teaching meditation for over 30 years. He is the founder of the Buddhist meditation website, Wildmind, and has written several books on mindfulness and meditation. Bodhipaksa has been influenced by both traditional Buddhist teachings and contemporary mindfulness practices and is known for his approachable and accessible style of teaching. He offers teachings, workshops, and retreats on mindfulness and meditation, and his work has been widely recognized and respected in the Buddhist community. He is also the creator of several guided meditation CDs and podcasts. Bodhipaksa’s teachings emphasize the importance of developing a personal meditation practice and incorporating mindfulness into daily life to cultivate well-being, compassion, and wisdom.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you. This has been an interesting conversation.

You’re welcome! I’m glad I could assist with your questions. If you have any other questions or topics you’d like to know more about, feel free to ask. I’m here to help.

Verdict

Overall, the AI did a good job of scraping together information from various sources and combining it into a coherent and meaningful series of statements. What it had to say about meditation must have been drawn from reliable sources, since it all makes sense and is the kind of thing I would tend to write. It slipped up in listing loving-kindness meditation and metta meditation as being various forms of practice. My interaction with it might have taught it not to make that mistake again.

The first two responses to “How does one find a qualified teacher?” aren’t actually helpful. They explained how to find a teacher, but not how to find if a teacher is qualified. The last two suggestions were helpful, though.

I don’t really experience colored lights when I meditate, but lots of people do and have questions about it. The answer ChatGPT gave to that question was actually rich and informative. It did better than I would have!

So yes, I think this AI could certainly write a decent article on meditation. Of course it will be very superficial lack any personal anecdotes, but the information above is pretty solid. (Of course it’s just recycled information from elsewhere.)

I was pleased to see its very kind description of me, and how my work is “widely recognized and respected in the Buddhist community.” Nice!

Could an AI lead a meditation? It gave some instructions above, but there’s a big difference between giving written instructions and actually leading someone though a meditation.

I suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone feeds it (or one of it’s AI buddies) a bunch of guided meditation recordings, and it learns to mix and match them into some kind of guidance. I have doubts about whether it would be able to learn to do that well. Anything’s possible, though.

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The five spiritual faculties: freedom in every moment

Scientific pentagram diagram

Buddhism is full of lists: the three trainings, the four foundations of mindfulness, the five skandhas, the eightfold path, the twelve-fold dependent origination, the 37 limbs of awakening, and so forth. Often these lists are presented in a rather static way, as if we’re just being offered an overview of some area of life. So the four foundations, for example, are often described as simply being four aspects of our experience that we can be mindful of, and the five skandhas as simply a way to break down the idea of a unified self.

The five spiritual faculties

One such list is the five faculties, or five spiritual faculties, as it’s often termed. If you aren’t familiar with the five spiritual faculties, they’re a very common teaching. They are faith, vigor, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. They tend, as I’ve suggested is often the case, to be presented as if they just are, or as if they are five things we simply need to develop in order to become awakened. That’s how they’re often presented in the scriptures, as in the following:

A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment. What five? The faculties of faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.

My impression of the Buddha is that he wasn’t really interested in providing overviews, but that he was instead very interested in how things work. He had a mind that was perhaps a bit like an engineer’s. His teaching on dependent origination, for example, is all about how one thing provides conditions for another arising and that to another, each of those conditions leading to a greater sense of freedom and joy. So when I see Buddhist lists one of my first thoughts is, how might the items on that list work together as a dynamic system.

The five spiritual faculties as a dynamic system

As it happens, when I was doing some background reading for writing this article, I found that there’s a relatively early text that does just this with the five spiritual faculties. In one Sanskrit commentarial work, “The Discourse on the Analysis of Topics” (or Arthaviniscaya Sutra) they’re presented as a dynamic series, with each of the factors building on the previous one. Although this text is called a “sutra,” a term usually reserved for records of things the Buddha and his disciples said, the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics is actually a commentarial text. It was created by monks a few centuries after the Buddha’s death, as they tried to explain some of the teachings found in the actual scriptures. And in the Discourse on the Analysis of Topics the five spiritual faculties are described as contributing, step by step, to the development of the skillful qualities needed for awakening to take place.

Here’s how that works:

  1. The faculty of faith is an awareness of the possibility of practicing in order to be happier.
  2. The faculty of vigor allows us to actually practice and develop skillful qualities.
  3. The faculty of mindfulness helps us to preserve and maintain those skillful qualities.
  4. The faculty of concentration allows us to stay focused on those skillful qualities.
  5. And finally the faculty of wisdom allows us to “penetrate and reflect on the birth” of those things, and thus to develop insight.

This early text tries to show the five spiritual faculties as working together as a system. And the explanation makes sense, although I’ll shortly show another way of looking at how they can work together.

The five spiritual faculties, moment by moment

Recently I taught a class in a local Buddhist center where I explained how the five spiritual faculties can work, moment by moment, working together more or less simultaneously, in order to help us move from unskillful to skillful states of mind, from states of mind that cause suffering to states of mind that are imbued with a sense of peace, calm, and even joy.

So let’s say that we experience anger, and see how the five spiritual faculties function. Because they work together in a simultaneous way, we could deal with them in any order.

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the activity of observing our experience. Without mindfulness no practice can take place, which is why I prefer to start with its role. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see that anger has arisen. So rather than simply being angry, now we’re aware that we’re angry.

These days there’s a tendency to see mindfulness as the only spiritual quality we need. But really it’s nothing more than simply observing. In itself it does nothing, which is why we also need the other spiritual faculties.

2. Wisdom

Often (especially in a Buddhist context) we might think about wisdom as an enlightened quality, as seeing reality as it really is, as something that arises at the end of the path and that we’ve yet to gain. But early Buddhism saw wisdom as consisting also of a very mundane form of understanding spiritual truths. For example, understanding that “There is meaning in giving, sacrifice, and offerings. There are fruits and results of good and bad deeds” are forms of wisdom.

So, in our example of being angry, our mindfulness tells us that anger is present. Wisdom tells us that this anger isn’t good for us and will likely lead to our suffering. Our wisdom also knows that there are alternatives to anger — curiosity, patience, kindness, and so on — that will make us happier in both the short and long terms.

3. Faith

Faith in Buddhism is not blind belief. It’s more like a sense of confidence and clarity. It’s from a root that literally means “to place the heart upon.” So we can know on some level that anger is going to cause problems for us, but on some other level believe that we need anger to get what we want. So our confidence in our practice is compromised.

But as we continue to mindfully observe actions and consequences unfolding in our lives, and with wisdom to see how those things are connected to each other, we can start to have more confidence that letting go of anger, and instead practicing things like curiosity, patience, and kindness, has both short- and long-term benefits.

So in this example, we’ve now mindfully noticed that anger is present, have wisely seen that anger causes suffering, and now, with faith, have confidence that some alternative to anger is more appropriate. Now, coming from the heart, there’s a desire for change. But we still haven’t actually acted.

4. Vigor

Vigor is virya, also sometimes rendered as “energy.” This is the faculty of taking action. So, now that we have confidence that non-anger is preferable to anger, we now act. We can act by letting go: we might have angry thoughts or be speaking angry words, and we simply let go of those. We can act by opening up to the possibility of acting in ways that are more helpful than anger, so that we have a sense that curiosity, patience, and kindness are there, waiting in the wings, ready to be activated. And some actions involve actually bringing those skillful qualities into being. We speak kindly or apologetically, for example. Or we empathetically try to understand a person we’re angry with.

5. Concentration

Concentration is samadhi, which comes from a root meaning something like “bringing together” or “holding together.” It refers to the mind being unified around one purpose.

Often when we hear the word “concentration” we think of a narrow focus, but that’s not necessarily what samadhi is about. Samadhi is more about having an absence of internal conflict, and therefore continuity of mindfulness.

So, in our example of dealing with anger, our concentration can mean keeping up a sustained effort to respond skillfully. As we all know, that’s difficult to do. There are parts of the mind that want to be angry and that see anger as solving our problems. And those parts of us can be very persistent, and can come back over and over again and hijack our attention. This is why maintaining concentration is necessary. So that’s one thing that concentration can mean in this instance.

But it can also refer to the state of mind that emerges from mindfulness, wisdom, faith, and vigor. As we continue to give priority to the wiser parts of our mind, the more reactive parts become weaker. They’re less able to affect us. They’re less able to control us. We’re less likely to do things we regret by acting unskillfully. And so, over time, we experience less inner conflict. The mind is more harmonized, more (to coin a word) samadhic.

But although I started to talk in that last paragraph about the long-term functioning of the five spiritual faculties, what I want to emphasize is how they function moment by moment, and how they’re intrinsic to every act of skillful change that we bring about. They function together, supporting each other, very time we work with an unhelpful or destructive habit. And as we exercise them over and over again in this way — at least if we do this in a half-way consistent way — they become stronger. So when the scriptures say something like “A mendicant must develop and cultivate five faculties so that they can declare enlightenment,” this is what they’re talking about: change, taking place moment by moment, and those acts of change developing habits that help liberate us from suffering.

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In case of self-doubt, remember who you really are

robert the bruce in battle, from ‘Bruce and de Bohun’ painted by John Duncan (1866 – 1945)

Recently I found myself feeling dejected and depressed, when a simple thought came into my mind that changed everything. It’s something I want to share with others, because I think it might help them too.

The other day I was out for a walk, and I was mulling over Wildmind’s precarious financial situation. Right now we don’t have enough sponsors to break even, and the bank balance has been dropping alarmingly.

I find it dispiriting, doing something I think is valuable and that not being supported. In my darkest moments I wonder if that means that what I do isn’t valued, and that can lead to me thinking I’m not valued.

These are the kinds of gloomy ruminations that were going on in my head as I was walking. I was feeling pretty down.

Finding the Warrior Spirit

Then, out of nowhere, came the thought, “You’re a warrior.”

I don’t normally think of myself that way. But as soon as the word “warrior” entered my mind, I felt a surge of energy and confidence.

“Don’t complain about your problems,” I thought. “Be a warrior and tackle them head on.”

And that made me think of how I come from a long line of people who have fought for survival.

We’re all the descendants of strivers and survivors

When my dad was nine years old, he father died in an accident. He ended up working at a very young age to help support his sister, brother, and my grandmother.

My dad’s mum had been orphaned at the age of 15, and she and her younger brother ended up in an orphanage. But when she was 16 she got a job as a cleaner, and got her brother out of the orphanage, effectively becoming his parent. She worked so hard that when she was 70 she looked like she was in her 90’s.

Her parents both had hard lives and passed away at the ages of 50 and 40, of infectious diseases common among working class people.

Her grandfather was a ship’s cook on a wooden cargo ship that caught fire while en route to India, shipwrecking him in Mozambique.

Most of the family before then were farm laborers or servants. They all had hard lives. But they all hung in there long enough to have surviving children.

My life is positively luxurious and care-free compared to most of theirs. I really have nothing to complain about.

Remember Who You Are

In fact I take inspiration from my ancestors.

We’re all the descendants of survivors: of strivers and warriors. I choose to emulate them by not letting myself be overcome by self-doubt.

I know that what I do is valuable. I know that I matter. I just have to keep reminding myself that financial challenges are a battle to be fought and won. It’s not that I’m aiming to conquer or harm anyone, of course; don’t take the warrior imagery too literally. But the difficult situation I face is one I turn toward, confidently, like one going into battle.

As the Buddha is reputed to have said on the eve of his enlightenment, “It is better to die fighting than to live as one vanquished.”

So if you doubt yourself — if you experience despair or hopelessness, when you feel like giving up — remind yourself of who you are. You’re a survivor, from a lineage of strivers stretching back four billion years. Take inspiration from the past as you face the future. Be a warrior.

If you feel inspired to help support Wildmind’s mission to teach meditation, and want to know the many benefits of doing so, click here to learn more about Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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On Identity Politics (Martin Luther King Day, 2023)

This Martin Luther King Day, I decided to adapt something I wrote as part of a longer piece on racism. The piece was written mainly for white people to reflect on, because I can only speak from my experience as a white male.

I’ve encountered a number of (white) Buddhist practitioners who argue strongly against “identify politics,” claiming that it’s fundamentally opposed to the Buddha’s teaching.

But what is “identity politics”? In The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory, Satya Mohanty, a professor of English, whose specialties include colonial and postcolonial studies, describes it as “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category (ethnicity, gender, class, religion) that gives them common political interests.”

By that definition, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and gay pride are all examples of identity politics.

Distorted Understandings of Identity Politics

Often what spiritual practitioners argue against is very different from what Mohanty describes. For example, in an online discussion one Western Buddhist stated that identity politics means that “the most important thing about a person is the group to which they belong, not their individuality.” Another, having said something very similar, went on to add, “identity politics is about classifying people into groups, and praising them, criticizing or condemning them because of their specific group identities.”

It seems that the more opposed people are to identity politics, the more different their definition of it is from the academic one. The more opposed they are to it, the more they include negative attributes in their definitions. Often what they describe not only doesn’t correspond to formal definitions, but to what we see happening on the ground — in the organizations that campaign for rights for marginalized groups or in the individual lives of people who support those groups.

For example, I’ve never come across an individual from a minority ethnic group who says that the most important thing about them is their ethnicity. Usually they regard the most important things about them as their being a parent, or being a spouse, and so on. Usually people feel affinities for other groupings as well as their ethnicity, based on class, religion, profession, etc. These are also an important part of their sense of who they are.

In general most people do not go around obsessing about what race they are. Our race is something we become aware of when we’re forced to, and one of the ways this commonly happens is when someone behaves in a racist way toward us. A Black or Asian person being asked by a white person, “But where do you really come from?”, or being stopped by the police for the second time in a week is forced into an awareness of their ethnicity. The more unfair or discriminatory a society is, the more those on the receiving end are to have to be aware of their ethnicity.

Also, only a tiny minority of people in groups that have been denied their rights are set on claiming that one group is inherently better than others. People from ethnic minorities almost all want equality.

There are two specific concerns with identity politics in the comments I quoted above.

Concern 1: Identity Politics Subsumes Individuality

This first is that people will subsume their individuality in group membership, presumably ceasing to think for themselves and instead having a tribal identity. Tribalism is a common problem with other political movements. It’s certainly not unique to the situation that marginalized groups find themselves in. And it’s certainly not inevitable when campaigning for equal rights that people will adopt group-think, any more than happens in other political movements. I’ve yet to see anyone arguing against identity politics produce any evidence that a loss of individuality is peculiar to people who have been discriminated against, who point to that discrimination as wrong, and who call for change.

Observing that you are a member of a group that has been marginalized or oppressed may or may not involve tribalism. Tribalism involves seeing one’s own tribe as good and other tribes as bad. But the purpose of identity politics is not to become dominant over other groups, it’s to gain the equality that’s been denied. The group doing the oppressing is not usually seen as being inherently bad, but as behaving in an unskillful way.

The point of demanding equality is to pressure or encourage the oppressive group to give up unskillful behaviors and to treat others as equals. This would not be possible if the oppressing group was inherently evil. In fact it recognizes that the oppressive group is inherently redeemable.

Of course people are people, and it’s inevitable that some people who embrace identity politics will have unskillful attitudes towards groups that oppress them. The surprising thing for me is how rare this is. That oppressed people generally want equality rather than vengeance is a testament to the high level of basic goodness that exists in the average human heart.

Concern 2: Assumptions of Superiority and Inferiority

The second specific concern is that those practicing identity politics see themselves as being better than other groups because of their status as victims of oppression. I’ve known plenty of individuals who are not minorities who carry a sense that the world is against them, and who seem to identify as victims, gaining some sense of “specialness” from that. And no doubt there are some people from marginalized groups who similarly cling to a sense of grievance and victimization. But the key thing is that discrimination and oppression do exist, and the important thing is to create a fairer world. To look for things to blame in oppressed individuals is hardly helpful, especially if one isn’t also placing even more emphasis on criticizing those doing the oppressing.

Both these fears — individuality being subsumed by group identities, and assumptions of superiority and inferiority — may sometimes, in some individuals, be true. But they’re not inherent in what identity politics is.

Those particular dangers are potentially there every time you participate in a group enterprise. For example I might describe myself as a Buddhist and become part of a spiritual community. And as a result I might decide that my identity as a member of that spiritual community is the most important thing about me. I might take on ideas without thinking about them. I might agree with the viewpoints of leaders rather than thinking for myself. Being a Buddhist can undermine your individuality in favor of a group identity. And of course I might consider my chosen group to be the best Buddhist group, and Buddhism generally to be better than other religions.

Being a Buddhist can be a practice of “identity politics” in this distorted sense. But it’s clear we don’t have to fall prey to those traps. We can be Buddhist and also maintain our individuality and not get caught up in what Buddhism calls “superiority conceit.”

I find myself wondering how people who are discriminated against because of their ethnicity, skin color, or gender could possibly find equality without first recognizing that they are part of a group that is subject to discrimination, and then highlight this discrimination and demand equality. This is how change happens. People identifying themselves as part of a group that’s discriminated against is a necessary step toward equality.

White Identity Politics

The concerns  that your membership of a particular racial group is the most important thing about you, and the belief that your racial group is superior to the majority racial group that is oppressing you, are in fact a very accurate description of racism.

And it strikes me that it’s white people who have historically been most obsessed about their ethnicity and the ethnicity of others. In other words, the most common form of “identity politics” (in a negative sense) may be white identity politics. This isn’t classic identity politics, since white people as a whole are not an oppressed minority, although many have seen themselves as the victims, or potential victims of other races, who were “the white man’s burden,” in Kipling’s words.

White racists see themselves as being special because of their whiteness. This sense of specialness gives them a sense of superiority compared to other groups.

It should go without saying that not all white people actively oppress or hate other races, but this attitude of superiority is very common.

“The Most Important Thing About a Person”

It was white people who invented (and kept redefining) the concept of whiteness.

Whiteness was the “the most important thing about a person” when the Supreme Court decided that black people could not be considered citizens. The most important thing about a person was their race when it came to many facets of life, from who you could marry to whether you could drink from a particular water fountain.

Even today, a person’s whiteness or non-whiteness is often the most important thing about for an employer when it comes to considering them for a job. Studies show that résumés submitted with “white names” (e.g. Ryan Jones) are more likely to receive replies than identical résumés with “black names” (for example Leroy Jones). For a policemen, a driver’s color is often the most important thing about them when it comes to deciding whether to pull them over. Black people are stopped, on average, one and a half times more often than white drivers, although this discrepancy vanishes at night, when it’s harder to see a driver’s race.

Race, in many times and places, has overwhelmingly been the most important thing about a person, as judged by white people. Not all white people, to be sure, but enough so that entire societies have had laws and constitutions based on the concept of racial superiority, designed to keep white people in a superior social and economic position. That is what racism is. It’s not simply disliking or resenting people of another race. It’s racial oppression.

This history of racism in the west is the history of white identify politics and of white assumptions of superiority leading to racial oppression. The history of anti-racism is the history of resistance to white identity politics and white assumptions of superiority, and resistance to racial oppression.

Because attitudes of superiority by white people have created oppression, ethnic minorities have been forced to band together to protect themselves and demand equal rights. This is  “identity politics.” And this is what some white people claim is a bad thing. These (white) people rarely talk about white assumptions of superiority, and how they create the need for identity politics.

Martin Luther King’s Dream

Buddhist critics of identity politics (or their own distorted idea of it) often point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream: that one day his children would be judged by the contents of their characters rather than the color of their skin. It sometimes seems it’s the only quote of his that they know.

They claim that King’s approach was one of advocating “color-blindness.” They see this as very different from identity politics, which, in an academic definition is “joint political action by individuals who feel themselves united by membership in a marginalized social category.” But what King did was precisely to take “joint political action” with others who were oppressed (along with white allies, of course).

Achieving equality, in King’s eyes, was to come about through “militancy” —  through struggling against the forces of racism.

King talked of a “Negro community” that existed in relation to “white people.” He wasn’t color-blind:

We must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

He was very aware the struggle needed white allies, but he also complained that even white so-called allies could be a hindrance:

I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”

(Incidentally, King wrote the above words from prison, which is why I’ve used his mugshot as an illustration.)

Martin Luther King’s dream didn’t depend upon people simply on ignoring race or pretending that race doesn’t exist. It depended on people (white and black) acknowledging oppression and actually standing up against it. For “white moderates” this meant getting to the point of caring about the plight of black people enough to actually do something.

“The white moderate” may have had no hatred toward Black people, but they were, King observed, more attached to “order” than in seeing change come about. Change is always turbulent. It’s socially turbulent because people are forced to protest. It’s personally turbulent because we who don’t care enough have to overcome our apathy and stand with the oppressed. And this means accepting uncomfortable truths about ourselves.

Those who are against identity politics often seem to resemble the white moderates King criticized. But then again, many of us do. As a white Dharma practitioner I feel it’s my responsibility to recognize not just active oppression and discrimination, but the passivity and complacency that allows oppression and discrimination to continue to ruin the lives of entire communities of people. Some of that passivity is mine. I need to recognize it, own it, overcome it, and so become actively opposed to racism and an active supporter of those who are subject to racism.

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Self-compassion and self-care

The two-headed Roman god, Janus

It’s funny — I’ve known since I was 13 that January is named for the god Janus, who has two faces: one looking forward and one backward. But right now it strikes me how appropriate that is.

The period around New Year is a natural time to look back at and see what was good or wasn’t so good. We can also look forward into the coming year and think about what we might do, and what we might change.

Anyway, I want to tell myself that I’m not interested in New Year’s Resolutions. This is mainly because of youthfully naive attempts with them that I forgot within days. But I can’t help but look, Janus-like, at the year that’s just past and the year that’s just beginning.

A Good Year and a Bad Year

Last year was tough in some ways. Three people I had strong connections with, including my sister, died within nine days of each other. I re-injured my back quite badly by straining my left sacroiliac joint. I could barely walk for several days, and was still in pain months later. My elderly parents both got Covid, which was worrying, although they both pulled through. And a big concern was that a lot of Wildmind’s sponsors were forced to cancel their subscriptions for financial reasons. (Most of those were in the UK, where the post-Brexit economy is truly dire.)

It was also a good year in some ways. I had a book (“A Year of Buddha’s Wisdom”) published on my birthday last year. I remained in that ever-shrinking group of people who have managed to avoid Covid. Toward the end of the year I rekindled a habit of walking daily. My meditation practice kept going, through thick and thin. Although the pandemic has reduced my social life almost to zero, I’ve adjusted to that being the case.

I spent the entire year writing on one topic, which I’ve never done before: on January 14th I sent out the first email in a course called “Politics as a Spiritual Practice,” and the last email of the course went out on December 29th. I’ve never before had an opportunity to explore one topic in such depth. In essence I wrote a book, and in fact I hope to find a publisher for it this year.

Sometimes the good and the bad are connected. Yes, I did a lot of writing. But that meant sitting for long periods at a computer, and that wasn’t good for my body, which led to me injuring my back.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Which brings me (finally) to the point of this article: I’m pretty good at self-compassion but not very good at self-care.

Self-compassion is where we respond in a kind, supportive way to our own suffering. We give ourselves the comfort and reassurance we need in order to get through hard times, whether those hard times last for a few moments or for months on end. It’s a powerful practice. I’m pretty good at it. I even wrote a book about it.

Self-care is where we take care of our own needs so that we don’t create as much suffering for ourselves in the first place. Keeping our long-term happiness and well-being in mind, we do what we need to do in order to be healthy and happy. That includes things like eating healthily, getting enough sleep, taking breaks from work, and getting regular exercise and stretching. The first two on that list I’m very good at. The third (taking breaks) I’m not bad at. The fourth (exercising and stretching) I’ve been very bad at.

Some people are good at self-care but not self-compassion. They might live very healthily but not be emotionally self-supportive. They might even be very self-critical. I’m good at self-compassion, but not at self-care. Ideally, we should be good at both.

My back injury was a good reminder of the importance of self-care. I really don’t want to go through that ordeal again, so I’ve been to a physical therapist and learned some stretches and exercises that will give my core more strength and give my body more flexibility. Together, those things should keep my back in reasonable health. And once this chest infection is out of the way I intend to get back to walking daily.

Lessons Learned

Based on the lessons I’ve learned from booking backward and looking forward, it feels appropriate to have an overall aim for the year, expressed in general terms. I’d describe that aim as “Thriving Though Self-Care.” I want to thrive — healthily, happily. I have an image of myself later this year, full of energy and joy. And I want to get there through practicing self-care.

It also seems that having general aims isn’t enough, so I’m setting myself the specifically goals of walking for a average of 30 minutes a day (at a minimum), and stretching at least once a day for five minutes.

If I miss a day’s walking (sometimes I’m sick, sometimes the weather makes it impossible) I’ll do more walking on other days to keep my average up.

I know from previous experience that accountability helps, so I’m going to check in about this daily in Wildmind’s community website, letting people know how I’m doing.

So I hope that will help me with my practice of self-care.

Two More Things

Two more things in regard to self-care:

First, toward the end of last year I started working a four-day week. I did this because of reading about an international study showing that when businesses switched to a four-day week they actually became more productive. I’ve been doing this for a month now, and I think it’s helping. I’ve noticed that I’m more creative than I’ve been for a while. I’m ending my workweek in a state of joy rather than exhaustion. I feel more relaxed at weekends, too.

Second, I was so focused on finishing the year-long course I was teaching on politics that I did almost nothing in response to losing about a third of my income as supporters withdrew their sponsorships. This caused a fair bit of anxiety, so as part of my practice of self-care I will be working on building up my base of subscribers again. It’s hard to create when you’re worried about whether you can afford to pay rent. In fact, in the long-term I’d like to have someone working with me on Wildmind who is responsible for community growth and community engagement. I’d like to have someone to work with, and I’d rather devote 100 percent of my energy to teaching and not have to think about money.

So that’s what I’m learning, looking back at next year, and that’s how I intend to live 2023 differently, based on those lessons. (One last goal: I want to write in this blog three times a month for the rest of the year, even if the reports are brief. Some of those posts will be follow-ons from this one.)

Anyway, I wish you a very Happy New Year. If you have any thoughts about self-care, or about New Year’s aspirations, resolutions, aims, or goals, why not add them in the comments below?

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Grief as a spiritual practice

My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

For a life to end is a strange thing. All those memories, those unique experiences, feelings, thoughts; all gone. We are left, holding our end of a relationship, and yet our love has nothing to connect to. I’m not surprised people like to believe in an afterlife (Fiona did, having lost her youngest child) but that’s not my thing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in my book, This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.

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Why you don’t have free will (and why that doesn’t matter)

image of robot, lacking free will

Free will is “the unimpeded capacity to choose between different possible courses of action.” We tend to believe that everyone has free will all the time, except under certain exceptional conditions, such as being hypnotized, or having a mental illness. I’m going to argue, however, that we don’t have free will, and that this doesn’t matter, because free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Free will is an important concept to us. Moral philosophers, religious teachers, and politicians have pointed to it as essential for personal morality as well as the flourishing of civilization. For example, Kant said “a free will and a will under moral laws is one and the same” and that if “freedom of the will is presupposed, morality together with its principle follows from it.” And Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, that American values are “rooted in a basic optimism about life and a faith in free will.”

The opposite of free will is determinism, which means that we’re wholly conditioned and aren’t responsible for our actions, even if we think we are. Determinism is a bit of a scary concept.

We believe that if we don’t have free will, life is deterministic. And if that’s the case, we’re less than fully human. If life is deterministic we’re not able to take responsibility for our lives, but are living in a purely conditioned way, like robots.

Problems with the concept of free will

The problem is that the concept of free will doesn’t seem to match up with how things actually are. For example, the American neuroscientist Benjamin Libet did an experiment a long time ago. He asked people to perform a certain action, like pressing a button, at random times of their own choosing. The important thing was that they were to do this action as soon as they thought of it.

Libet used EEG to monitor subjects’ brains as they did this experiment and found that there was a burst of activity initiating the pressing of the button. This took place something like three tenths of a second before the participants had their first awareness of any conscious will to act.

So that’s a challenge for the idea of free will, because free will is the experience of choosing. But what Libet saw was that something that was not experienced consciously was pushing people to make a choice. It’s a bit like asking someone to jump into a swimming pool at a random time, but behind them some hidden person is actually pushing them in. What seems to happen is that just after the person has been pushed, they think, “OK, I’ve just decided to jump.”

As observers to this event, we can see that the person who thinks they decided to jump didn’t actually jump. They were pushed. Which means that they only thought they decided to leap. Which means that they only thought they had free will.

Another more recent experiment, using more sophisticated MRI equipment, asked people to perform an action with either their right or left hand. In this case it was possible to see activity taking place a full five to six seconds before the action was taken. This activity allowed the scientists to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, which decision would be taken. So that’s even more challenging.

You might want to imagine the decision-making process as being like a whole line of hidden people behind the person by the pool. There’s a whole chain of shoves, with someone at the back of the line creating a domino effect, until eventually the person standing at the edge falls into the pool, saying, “OK, I just decided to jump in!”

This doesn’t leave much room for the conventional understanding of free will, which involves conscious choice. And since free will is seen as crucial to morality, this is very jarring.

Why the free will concept is so cherished

I gather that the concept of free will arose as part of Christian thinking. In that model, God put us on earth, and will ultimately judge us based on what we do here. For example we’ll be judged  based on whether we accept or reject the existence of God, and on whether we follow his will.

Imagine a God demanding that we make certain decisions and punishing us (for eternity) for failing to do so. And imagine that he’d created us without free will. Such a model would be cruel and arbitrary.

Anyone believing that God wants us to make choices pretty much has to believe in free will.

Free will is not a Buddhist concept

Now, Buddhism doesn’t talk about free will.

So what does Buddhism talk about? Well, Buddhism’s certainly not deterministic. The essence of Buddhist practice is that we are able to make choices. For example, the very first chapter of the Dhammapada, a very influential Buddhist text, is called the twin verses, or “The Pairs,” because most of the verses are, as you’d expect, in pairs. Each pair presents a choice: Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy. Buddhism’s entire ethical system revolves around making choices between what is unskillful (what causes suffering), and what is skillful (what brings freedom from suffering).

Aren’t the ability to choose and free will the same thing? Well, no. The freedom to chose is not the same as “free will.”

Buddhism talks about conditionality. Everything arises in dependence upon something else. What arises is dependent on what existed just before. Choices arise dependent on what existed at the time of choosing. And so our choosing is never unconstrained. If “will” exists, it can never be entirely free.

The Buddha pointed out that it doesn’t work to say, “Let my consciousness be thus” and expect that to happen. You can certainly have that thought — for example, “I choose to be happy right now, and to stay that way for the rest of my life” — but it won’t work. Being happy forever is not an option available to you, because your mind is conditioned, and the conditions affecting your happiness can never be entirely under your control.

You might be able to make choices that affect your well-being in a positive way, but you’re always choosing from a limited menu. You can’t meaningfully decide to be happy, but you can make choices that nudge your mind in the direction of happiness. You can choose to do things that leave you feeling less unhappy, or maybe even just a little happier. You might, for example, choose to drop a hateful thought, or choose to relax your body, or you might choose to cultivate a loving thought. These things all make a difference. But the menu might not, at any given time, even include the option, “be happy.”

This clearly isn’t teaching determinism. It’s saying that although we can choose, we can only choose from a limited menu. Free will is not a Buddhist concept.

Having chosen, we change the conditions that are present for the next choices we make. That’s important, as we’ll see in a moment.

We have a limited capacity to choose

Often, it’s not just that we don’t have many options to choose from, but that sometimes it’s hard even to make a choice. We might not recognize that we’re able to drop one thought, to relax the body, or to cultivate another thought. At certain times we might lack mindfulness and not even realize that options are available. At those times we really are like automata.

To make a choice requires mindfulness. Choosing requires that we stand back from our own mind and see the choices available to us.

Mindfulness might allow us to recognize, for example, that we’re acting out of anger, and to see that the possibility of being kind or patient is also open to us. And if we see that those options exist, and that they have different outcomes — one that brings more conflict and misery, and another that brings  more peace and happiness — maybe we can make that choice.

But sometimes we’re not mindful. Our conditioning can be so strong, and our emotions so powerful, that we aren’t able to stand back. We’re just swept along by a tide of emotion. The conditions that allow us to choose just aren’t there.

Wiggle room

When we are mindful, it’s a very precious thing. It’s then that we have choice. We can choose not to do things that will make us and others unhappy in the long-term, and we can choose to do things that are for the long-term happiness and well-being of ourselves and others.

If we keep making these kinds of choices, we change the pathways in our brains, which creates long-term changes in how we act. We become kinder and less reactive, for example. This spiritual work is the real meaning of the word “karma,” which in fact simply means “work” or “action.” Karma is action that changes who we are, for better or for worse.

Mindfulness gives us some wiggle-room amongst all the constraints of conditioning that hem us in and restrict our freedom. And by exercising mindfulness and reducing our reactivity we’re loosening those constraints. We’re using our wiggle-room to create more wiggle-room.

Choosing is never conscious

Libet showed that we only think we make conscious choices. Choices are made, or they begin to be made, up to five or six seconds before we are consciously aware of them.

There’s a part of our mind that, when decisions (say, to jump in the pool) erupt into conscious awareness, immediately says, “I decided to do that.” I call this part of the mind “the plagiarist” because it’s trying to take the credit for things it didn’t do. The plagiarist’s voice is what we take to be the voice of the self. We’ve been hearing that voice our whole lives, and we automatically believe it. This is the reason we believe that decisions that are made unconsciously are actually conscious decisions. And this is why we believe we have a self that is consciously making choices.

That decisions happen unconsciously is not a problem for Buddhism. In fact it’s something that Buddhism is happy to accept. Indeed, tecognizing that the plagiarist is deluded, and that there is no “self” making decisions is a key insight in Buddhist practice.

As long as choice happens, it doesn’t matter that decisions start unconsciously, long before they erupt into conscious awareness. As I’ve said, that’s how all decisions happen.

And it doesn’t matter that our decision-making is conditioned and not entirely free. That’s just how things are. Everything is conditioned.

“The Pairs”

The important thing is that the decisions that are made take into account more and more our long-term happiness and well-being. That is, it’s important that wise decisions happen — decisions that widen the degree of wiggle-room we have for making further wise decisions.

So to come back to very ordinary experiences — we keep catching ourselves (as long as mindfulness is present) reacting with states such as anger and anxiety. We keep recognizing that those ways of being create pain. We keep letting go of angry and anxious ways of thinking and behaving, and instead seek love and calmness. And we keep recognizing that the result of doing this is that we become happier.

Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy.

And in seeing the two sets of consequences available to us — painful or pleasant — we give mindfulness an incentive to make an appearance.

Keep doing this over and over again, and we become more free, and happier.

But what’s happening isn’t the result of decisions being consciously made. Our belief that decisions are consciously made is a delusion. And what’s happening is not “a self” taking action. Not only is there no free will, but there’s no self to have free will.

Instead choices are making themselves. And if this happens with the awareness, “Do this, and you’ll suffer. Do that and you’ll be happy,” then we find that, more and more, skillful actions result.

The plagiarist is very convincing, though. It’s not easy to see through its lies. And again, that doesn’t matter. At first all we want to happen is that we make choices that liberate. Let go of anger, and cultivate love, and you’ll be happier and freer to make further skillful choices in the future. If the plagiarist keeps saying, “I did that,” then that’s a separate problem we can tackle later. (In fact, right now that probably doesn’t even seem like a problem.)

For now, just keep valuing mindfulness and the freedom to choose that it affords us.

This article was originally written for supporters of Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative. Supporters of Wildmind get access to more than 30 online courses I’ve developed, as well as other articles and guided meditations.

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A letter to Jacob

picture of mailboxes

I get some interesting emails. Usually they’re kind and appreciative. I particularly enjoy hearing from people who have found things I’ve written, or guided meditations I’ve recorded, to be helpful. Often people ask questions, and I’m happy to reply to them to the best of my ability.

Sometimes the emails I get are critical, though, and this one that arrived just a few days ago falls into that camp.

It’s from someone who called himself Jacob, although I don’t know if that’s his real name. I don’t know if it’s your real name, I should say, since this blog post is my reply to you, Jacob. (You used a fake email address, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to address your comments directly.)

Here’s the email you sent. You’ll find my reply below:

Name: Jacob
Email: FAKE ADDRESS @outlook.com
Message:
Do your supporters know they are in fact supporting your living in a 400K condo, STEPHEN?
You are hardly a Buddhist with a begging bowl, now are you? Unless and until you make full disclosure online of this hithertofore undisclosed material fact to those supporters you are in my view being unethical.

Isn’t that a Buddhist no-no? Tis odd how you have never mentioned this before…

[link to my apartment’s Zillow listing removed]

So, Jacob, you did your homework and tracked down my home on a real estate site! More about that in a moment.

And you also found my family name, which was indeed Stephen until I legally changed my name after my ordination in 1993. So that hasn’t been my last name for a long time.

I believe this is called “deadnaming,” where a person insists on using someone’s former name. It’s like if a woman gets married and changes her surname, yet someone insists on using her maiden name. The point of doing this is to cause offense by refusing to recognize something that is important to the other person. So that’s not a good start, Jacob. You’re forgiven, though! This has happened to me many times, and it really doesn’t bother me.

Let’s get back to the house thing, though. Yes, you did your homework and looked up my home address online.

Unfortunately you didn’t do your homework very thoroughly. The reason I have never mentioned that I live in a “$400k condo” is because the address you linked to in your email is actually the rented apartment that I share with my partner.

You’d have seen that it was a rental apartment if you’d dug around a little more in the Zillow listing.

Here’s the relevant part. I’ve circled where it mentions the rent. Just below that it uses the word “tenant.” I admit it’s a little confusing, since it also mentions “condo dues” for reasons I can’t guess at, except that my landlord’s secretary is a bit of a character and a little odd in the way she writes things — maybe you can get a flavor of that in the listing! She *loves* asterisks!! And exclamation marks!! It’s kind of fun!!

(It’s also odd that she says that the apartment is available August 19th. I’m assuming this is an old listing, since we’re still living here!)

Image

Anyway, no, I do not live in a $400,000 condo. I don’t own a house. I can’t afford one at present.

I rent an apartment with my partner. It’s not a luxury apartment: the rent is $1,765, including a $50 fee for our two dogs and a surcharge because my kids stay here part-time. (Landlords, eh? They’ll get you for everything!) We’d like to own our own place one day, so that our dogs can have a yard to run around in, and we’re trying to save for that. Of course I’ll be in my 90’s by the time the mortgage is paid off, if we can ever find a place we can afford.

I said our apartment is not a luxury apartment. It’s a decent place to live, although it’s not in the nicest part of town. Until a couple of months ago we had a couple of meth addicts living downstairs from us. They weren’t too much trouble except when their cigarette smoke and weed came up into our apartment. Fortunately they didn’t burn the place down before they left. I took a walk-through after they’d gone and while the apartment was being gutted, and the carpets were covered in cigarette burns. Oh, and dog shit from their pit bull! So, not a luxury apartment, and not in the best part of town. Good news: our new downstairs neighbors are a lovely young couple!

It’s not the worst part of town either, though. We’re right beside some woods where I like to walk the dogs.

But even if I had lived in a $400k condo, what would that mean, Jacob? It could have been inherited. It might be my partner’s. I might have bought it at some time in my life when I had a high paying job and now be living in poverty. (Although there’s never a time I had a high-paying job.) I might be sleeping on the couch in a friend’s house. There are lots of possibilities one could consider.

Also, a minor point: in the area where I live, a $400,000 house is well below the median house sale price of $550,000 (crazy, eh!), which is why I’m renting. So if I had owned this place it would be a below-average house in a fairly working-class town.

You demanded that I “make full disclosure online of this hitherto-fore undisclosed material fact,  Jacob. So here it is. I can’t disclose that I live in an expensive condo, because I don’t. But I do disclose that I live in a rented apartment, splitting $1,765 of rent with my partner.

And no, I’m not a Buddhist monk with a begging bowl. (Although I am a Buddhist.) I have two adopted children and two rescue dogs, and (as mentioned) a partner. I’m not rich, either. I recently bought a five-year-old Prius C (a hybrid electric/gasoline vehicle) that I got from a friend at a good price. It’s replaced my previous car, a 12-year-old Mazda6, which I bought used eight years ago, and which has 216,000 miles on the clock — most of them from the previous owner, who did a lot of driving. I have virtually no savings because I just gave them to the friend who sold me the Prius. (By the way, I’m absolutely loving the fuel economy and I’m glad to know that my carbon footprint has shrunk.) Oh, I have no pension plan either.

I basically just scrape by, and often experience anxiety because I have to juggle bills. So it’s kind of ironic to be accused of being wealthy.

Apart from three years in Scotland when I worked for the Community Education Department in Lanarkshire, I’ve spent my entire adult life either as a student or working full-time to teach meditation and Buddhism. It’s not a lucrative way to make a living. When I ran a retreat center in the Scottish Highlands, or an urban Buddhist center in Edinburgh, or worked in a Buddhist right livelihood business I basically got my food and board covered, plus some pocket money. Things are better now, but it’s still often a struggle to get by. It’s been worth it, though. Even though I don’t have any savings and will probably never be able to retire, I enjoy what I do. I especially find it heart-warming to know that I’ve helped people become happier.

Anyway, It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, Jacob. We’ve all done it. If you’d just asked a question and given a real email address, I’d have been happy to reply with the information you were seeking. I imagine that you have concerns about “gurus” making vast sums of money, and there are good historical reasons for having those concerns. But believe me, that’s not my situation in the slightest.

Hopefully this has set your mind at ease, if you’re reading this. I hate to think that you’re out there suffering because you mistakenly believe I’m some kind of rich guru. And maybe other people think the same thing?

Money is tricky when you teach meditation. Much of the time in the past I’ve taught courses that had suggested donations, with plenty of leeway for people who couldn’t afford the full amount. Right now the bulk of the income that pays my rent and bills comes from monthly contributions from supporters. These are people who appreciate the teaching I do, and who pay a sum each month to Wildmind (the amount varies from person to person) to make it possible for me to explore and teach meditation. This is what I do full time. Being supported in that way is my dream!

Unfortunately the amount that comes in from supporters isn’t enough to cover my expenses, so I have to do other bits and pieces of work in order to make ends meet. I do long for the day when I no longer have to worry about money. (And I’d love my dogs to have a yard to run around in.)

So if you’re reading this, Jacob, and I haven’t annoyed you too much (that’s not my aim at all), and you see some value in what I teach, do feel free to consider becoming one of Wildmind’s supporters. I appreciate all the support I receive, because it allows me to do what I love, which is to teach meditation and help people live happier and more fulfilling lives. If you are interested, you can click on this link.

I hope you’re having a great day, Jacob — and anyone else who’s read this far.

With love,
Bodhipaksa

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How and why to cultivate gratitude

“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that beings us happiness.”

Why Practice Gratitude?

Gratitude is good for us. Our minds have a built-in “negativity bias,” so that we tend to pay more attention to things that aren’t going right. In fact, if we can’t find something that’s going wrong we’ll make something up by imagining future calamities. And this focus on what’s wrong creates anxiety and stress, diminishing our sense of well-being. And at the same time, we tend to take for granted and ignore things that are going right in our lives, depriving us of a sense of joy.

Practicing gratitude reverses this trend. By recognizing that there are in fact many things going right in life, and by taking our conscious attention to those things and naming them, we feel happier, and we experience less anxiety and stress.

In fact, research shows that one of the easiest things we can do to bring more happiness into our lives is to regularly practice gratitude.

In Wildmind’s online community website (which is for sponsors of our Meditation Initiative) there’s a bunch of us who regularly share things we’re grateful for. Some people do this sporadically. I try to do it daily, although occasionally there’s a day I miss.

Some Suggestions for Gratitude Practice

One of our community members recently wrote, asking for advice about how to cultivate gratitude. He wrote, “I feel almost, well actually, embarrassed to admit that I don’t feel a lot of gratitude for the everyday things in my life. What do I do if I can’t find anything that I feel genuinely grateful for? Is the practice like metta where we might just start with an intention?”

A bunch of people in the community jumped in with suggestions, and I thought I’d share some of this communal wisdom here.

  • Write it down. That makes it more real.
  • Do it every day, and come up with at least five things. If your list is shorter than this, then make sure you’re choosing things that aren’t obvious, and that you haven’t thought of before.
  • Don’t just create a checklist.Dwell on the things you’re cultivating gratitude for. Hold them in your heart and mind until gratitude arises.
  • Challenge yourself. For many people, finding three things to be grateful for becomes easy. Too easy. So easy it becomes rote. So maybe a list of five is good. If it feels hard to come up with the last one or two, that’s good! It means you’re eventually calling to mind things that weren’t obvious.
  • Look for specifics. It’s easy to say, “I’m grateful for my spouse.” Instead, think of specific things you’re grateful for in your spouse. It might be qualities or traits they have that you appreciate. Or it may be things they’ve done.
  • If you find it’s difficult to get started, introduce an element of play, for example by creating a list of things you are grateful for that are green or that start with the letter “j”.
  • Another way to  introduce playfulness and overcome a mental block is to list “favorite things.” For example, your favorite drink, color, tree, 20th-century invention, philosopher, bird, dessert, band, item of clothing …
  • Just jump in. Once you get going, inspiration arises. “Once we begin writing This morning we feel grateful for… a few times, the genuine appreciation begins to bubble to the surface. We’re determined to practice this discipline daily whether we feel like it or not.
  • Look for small things: “It took me some time to align myself with the fact that life is made up of lots of small things that bring pleasure or gratitude into our lives that largely go unnoticed, perhaps because they’re so routine, e.g. that quiet cup of coffee first thing in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up. Also, consider that there are far fewer ‘large’ events to draw upon anyway, so anyone is likely to run out of material quite quickly if they rely on them!”
  • Think of what life would be like without something “ordinary” that you’re experiencing or depend on right at that moment. It would be a major and difficult change not to be able to see or hear, for example. Or not to have electricity or flowing water. Or not having shops where you can buy food. If you spend a little time thinking about how it would be without those things, then you can appreciate having them.
  • Think about the things people don’t have that you do have. Some people are homeless, and many people in the world have very few possessions. A basic item that you or I would take for granted would be unimaginable wealth to someone who has very little. So imagine what it would be like being them, having something that you take for granted.
  • Think about how things were in the past. It’s not that long since an eight-mile journey meant walking for hours through mud. Until recently dentistry was done without anesthetic, people died young from tuberculosis, and so on. Our lives are so easy in comparison. So imagine being in those situations, and you might find it’s easier to appreciate what you have.
  • It’s okay when you are not feeling particularly grateful. This happens to everyone. Actual feelings of gratitude will return in time. In the meantime, keep noticing things you could be grateful for. Make mental notes of them, and even write them down.  Start with small things, like feeling grateful for coffee or falling back to sleep even if you were up for hours during the night, etc. You get into the habit of noticing things you might feel grateful for, and feelings of gratitude increase.

Keep Going: It’s a Practice!

Often when I sit down to write at least five things I’m grateful for — I do this in the morning — I find it hard to get past the first three. But I always manage to get to five, and often by the time I get to the end of the list I find myself sitting there, just grateful for breathing, for existing, and for every precious moment that arises. And when I read other people’s expressions of gratitude on our community website, I feel grateful for having been given an insight into other people’s lives, so that I can share in their appreciation and joy.

Practicing gratitude brings us a sense of abundance. Without it, we easily feel we’re living in a hostile world where nothing is going right. With it, we can come to feel that we are surrounded by blessings.

I strongly recommend this practice of gratitude, and hope you found the suggestions above helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of becoming one of Wildmind’s sponsors (those benefits go well beyond having a place to share our gratitude with each other) you can do so by clicking here.

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